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Wisconsin’s Loss to Northwestern: Was This A Long Time Coming?

Despite the wins, it’s been an uneven month for Wisconsin.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The inevitability has nothing (specifically) to do with Northwestern. The Wildcats played a near perfect game, and delivered Wisconsin’s first loss at home since early January 2016 last year. No, the loss’ eventuality has more to do with troubling markers first evident against Michigan nearly a month ago.

Last week, I laid out a how-to for beating Wisconsin, which is admittedly over-simplified. The keys included: defending Ethan Happ well, limiting fouls/offensive rebounds and operating efficiently on offense.

None of those are overly revelatory. But, teams that want to beat Wisconsin have to limit Happ, if possible. Because Wisconsin has struggled from the field, opponents can’t send the Badgers to the line, or give them extra opportunities on the glass. Lastly, because possessions are precious, opponents need to maximize offensive trips (good shots, few turnovers).

Nebraska nearly got there, but failed in one particular area, which we’ll discuss below. Chris Collins seemingly co-opted Tim Miles’ defensive game plan, and played even more efficiently. Let’s take a deeper dive.

Wisconsin at Nebraska

From the jump, Nebraska decisively (strategically) doubled Happ, and took away the first two passes. This forced either a dribble, or a challenging pass. Nebraska’s defensive rotations were sharp, and effective at closing on shooters. (Happ finished with eight points and 14 rebounds, but turned the ball over three times and didn’t have an assist.)

Next, the Huskers used the building’s energy and competed aggressively on the boards. Nebraska won the rebounding battle 50-37, with an astounding 20 offensive rebounds. We can quibble about whether the Huskers defended without fouling, but Nigel Hayes went to the line 11 times (probably too frequently).

Offensively, Nebraska shot 40 percent overall, and 42 percent from three. So, how did they lose?

For starters, Nebraska turned the ball over 22 times, and despite the 20 offensive rebounds, the Cornhuskers didn’t really cash in (only seven second chance points).

Furthermore Hayes hit a gigantic three, and overall had a tremendous second half (scoring 18 of his 20 points after the first 20 minutes). Wisconsin also got timely buckets from Zak Showalter (a four-point play!) and some next-level defense from Happ.

Wisconsin vs. Northwestern

Ok, so nothing about which to worry. Any road win is a good win; besides, Nebraska’s tough at home. And, the Badgers are back in Madison.

Like Nebraska, the Wildcats incorporated a similar game plan: double Happ and deny the first two passes, forcing a skip. Happ struggled a bit with fouls, and finished with just nine points. But, he had five assists. The doubles still impacted him (four turnovers), and Northwestern closed well on shooters.

Wisconsin was plus-seven at the free throw line, and the Wildcats didn’t give them an edge on the glass (just 34-32). So, Northwestern accomplished much of what Nebraska did (even shot better than 40 percent from three).

Going next level, the Wildcats only turned the ball over six times, and Bryant McIntosh gave Northwestern the late lift. (14 of his 25 points came in the second half.)

Wisconsin will have to determine how to handle Happ doubles more effectively, whether it’s moving off the ball to creating better passing lanes, or finding more varied ways to get him involved.

Overall

Wisconsin still controls its destiny in the Big Ten title race; the road just becomes a little dicey now. Road games at Michigan and Michigan State loom, as do home dates with Maryland and Minnesota.

Nobody should overreact to one loss, but since the Michigan game on January 17th, Wisconsin hasn’t exactly been sharp. (Greg Gard basically said as much after post-Nebraska.)

So, it’s part of a somewhat unnerving trend, and now there’s a blueprint (Nebraska/Northwestern). Which teams can actually execute it to Northwestern’s level? That’s the question.